A critical component of Obama’s Afghan strategy – separating local Afghans from Taliban insurgents and then building social and economic programs that create local loyalty to the central government – is being nullified because of inadequate numbers of Afghan police who are illiterate, untrained and deserting in droves, congressional and other experts say.
Speaking of the current Marine assault into the southern province of Helmand, an administration official said: “Material support and strong and continuous aid are essential to our progress.” Adding, “The Taliban are counting on the United States and its allies to be unable to sustain a costly and interminable war.”
The Obama strategy of “hold and build” is designed to defeat the insurgent’s strategy of attrition, he said.
Yet so far, the beginning of Obama’s intensified Afghan campaign seems a huge, incoherent muddle, lacking in clear direction, a clear chain of command, and adequate numbers of U.S., allied and Afghan troops. For example, in a report just posted by CSIS Afghan expert Tony Cordesman, who spent two weeks with Gen. Stanley MacChrystal’s Afghan command, he noted that: “…the baseline for major expansions of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police (ANP) are goals for 2014.” Yet senior U.S. military officials are still talking about major results this year.
According to DOD sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, the goal is to forge a true operational partnership between NATO, U.S. and the Afghan national forces. Funding for both Afghan groups is already under way, the rationale being that partnering with Afghan forces will prove far cheaper than trying to have NATO and the United States mount huge numbers of troops on their own.
The key task for the Afghan army is to capture territory under control of the Taliban, then hold it and separate the inhabitants from the insurgents. Once territory is held, it can be built – meaning the inauguration of road construction, school construction, road repair, construction of irrigation systems and other civil projects designed to strengthen the allegiance of the inhabitants to the Kabul government.
According to congressional sources, the Afghan National Police is to perform the “hold” function for the various Afghan population centers which is essential to any counterinsurgency campaign. The pressing difficulty is that the condition of the ANP is currently so poor it doesn’t appear capable of performing that mission, sources said.
Three factors are chiefly responsible. For one, the ANP are poorly trained. According to recent statements by counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, the ANP have no counterinsurgency courses, no counterinsurgency doctrine, and no personnel with counterinsurgency skills. According to Brookings Institution Afghan analyst, Vanda Felba-Brown, what the ordinary Afghan population wants “is suppression of ordinary street crime and the rule of law” yet the ANP’s own lawlessness is currently responsible for most crime.
Officially, the functions of the ANP are to man check points that monitor the movements of suspicious individuals, help identify IEDs and suicide bombers and provide intelligence, but Felba-Brown said that in fact the ANP is the institution seen by the populace as the “most corrupt and unresponsive of the needs of the people.”
She added that the police are an active part of criminal rings and that they have made a profitable industry of kidnapping, weapons smuggling, and have set up a dense network of checkpoints on busy roads where police extort huge fees from people using them. In addition, police extortion of farmers is so rampant, “they no longer attempt to transport their crops to market but use them as subsistence,” she said.
Much of the ANP’s incompetence is due to a lack of adequate training but their mission of administering the rule of law is sidetracked and distorted by the sinister influence of power brokers or war lords. Afghan expert Gretchen Peters in a recent book “Seeds of Terror,” wrote of one power broker, Haji Juma Khan, as a criminal skilled in building networks and schemes to corrupt officials wherever he has chosen to operate. Provincial governors’ security agents, officials in the Highway Police or regional military commanders were all his targets. U.S. officials report that many Taliban commanders have forged affective and close ties with Afghan police officials which have proved troublesome. A recent UN report detailed a complex system of kickbacks involving 36 districts where governorships, customs and police postings are up for auction with the job winners paying huge fees to senior officials to keep their place. Top police officials in key districts pay $10,000 a month for job security, Peters said.
Cordesman noted in his report that power brokers see any improvement in police efficiency as a threat to their own operations and are desperate to forestall it by any means. But Cordesman and others make clear that their activity can only be countered by making vast improvements in the ANP leadership.
Several sources including Velba-Brown and Cordesman said that only a major reorganization within the ANP can bring this about. What is urgently needed are paramilitary groups and gendarmeries capable of dealing with insurgents. These need to be strengthened and such groups should be able to defend themselves. Some would then be assigned to perform the “hold” function in urban areas while others would provide a lasting presence in remote rural areas.
Vetting of ANP members needs to be more thorough. Cordesman said there needs to be an effort to “eliminate any remaining insurgent shadow government, justice systems and networks” in order to deal with organized crime and defeat power brokers involved in gross corruption.
But the problem that looms over these ambitious plans is that they cannot be undertaken without the “big problem of reforming the Ministry of Interior,” as a congressional source said. Much of the Hamid Karzai government is seen as corrupt, weak or oppressive since many of government officials see the government, not as providing for the public welfare, but as a machine for ensuring private enrichment, congressional sources said. Most of Kabul’s provincial and district governors have no popular backing in the areas they control, said these sources.
Cordesman observed that the ANP can only work if they are linked to the creation of effective courts that are part of a criminal justice system that has managed to rid itself of corruption, a problem he described as “an urgent one for the Afghan people.”
But congressional sources insisted the ANP must “clean up its own act first.” Alex Their of the U.S. Institute for Peace and Felba-Brown said that the ANP’s continuing misconduct is a key element undercutting U.S. efforts to win widespread Afghani support. Said Their: “A number of people in Taliban controlled areas have become neutral because they don’t support the Karzai government which has not presented anything positive that would be worth the risk of defying the Taliban.”
The public’s dislike of the ANP is even more harmful to U.S. strategic aims since “the police are one government element that is in constant contact with the population,” a congressional source said.
Another deeply troubling factor is the widespread use of drugs by the police. The Afghan police have more clashes with Taliban forces and suffer three times higher casualties than the Afghan army. As a result, their use of drugs “is pretty rampant,” said a congressional source.
“Police drug abuse should be a critical focus, but so far reform efforts have not been successful,” said Velba-Brown. Part of it is due to their training “being so minimal” and a troubling shortfall of qualified trainers.
The other major problem is their high rate of desertion. According to Velba-Brown the retention rate for the ANP in Helmand province is only 20 percent, and between 20 and 40 percent in Kandahar, numbers verified by U.S. officials.
“Retention is a terrible problem,” said a congressional source.
Obama is currently scrambling to pile police trainers and other resources thick and fast into training, but the resources are still lacking, said sources. As of July, the uniformed police had an authorized strength of 47,000 and 51,000 assigned. Yet only a small segment of Afghanistan’s 364 police districts exhibited any training activity, according to U.S. documents.
“There are very substantial problems looming on the horizon with respect to getting this program on its feet,” said Their.
Said Cordesman, “The build phase cannot be properly implemented unless the ANP has the capacity and integrity to support an effective civil rule of law by Afghan standards and custom.”
But that goal appears to remain far in the future.